And Talk in the Past and Not the Present Tense*

Past and Present TensesA couple of weeks ago, I invited you to vote on your opinion of the use of the present tense in crime fiction. It’s an interesting question, and, I think, a timely one. There are plenty of modern books written in the present tense, and I was fascinated to learn what you think of it.  Thanks very much to all of you who participated. Now, let’s keep the discussion going. Let’s start by having a look at the results of the poll.
 
 
 

Past and Present Tense Poll Results

 

As you can see, of the 21 of you who were kind enough to vote, over half (12) don’t mind the use of the present tense. Your comments show me, too, that your focus is much more on the quality of the story and the characters than it is on the tense. That’s borne out by the fact that 4 of you said you don’t really notice which tense the authors of your crime fiction use. Interestingly enough, 5 of you said you dislike the use of the present tense. That doesn’t surprise me particularly, since I know from your blogs and from other comments a few of you have made that you don’t care for it. Perhaps the most interesting finding here (at least to me) is that no-one mentioned liking the use of the present tense.

So what does all of this mean? There were only 21 respondents, so it’s hard to make any kind of general statement. But It seems to me, just from looking at this, that while tense may be a reason you’d choose not to read a book (or if you do, that you’d not like it), it’s not a reason you would read a book (or like it). In other words, if tense affects your opinion of a book, it’s in a negative way. And another glance at the data shows that for 16 of you (76%), tense doesn’t make a difference; either you don’t mind it or you don’t notice it.

I thought it might be interesting to put this in a larger perspective. Just how many crime novels are there in the present tense? Is this a large issue, or is it something smaller, but something that you really notice if you don’t like it? After all, it only takes one mosquito in a room to be really annoying. And for those of you who don’t like the present tense, it may only take one book written in that tense to annoy you.

To study this question just a little, I chose 200 books from among those I have read. All of the books have been published since 2000. I selected that year, because although I don’t have the data to support me, it’s my impression that a lot more books have been written in the present tense since 2000 than before it. For each book, I noted whether it is written in the past tense, the present tense, or some combination (and yes, there were a few of those). Here’s what I found:

 

Tenses in Books

 

As you see, 75% of the books in my data set are written in the past tense. So, even since 2000, there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming tendency to write in the present tense. Keep in mind, of course, that this is quite a limited data set, since it only represents books I have read. Still, I think it hints that there aren’t as many books written in the present tense as it might seem, especially if you don’t like that tense when you read.

In the end, based on what you’ve told me and on what this bit of data shows, the real key to a well-written book isn’t what tense the author chooses. It’s the quality of the plot, the character development and the overall writing style. But then, you knew that…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elvis Costello’s Brilliant Mistake.

35 Comments

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35 responses to “And Talk in the Past and Not the Present Tense*

  1. I find it hard to write in the present tense. It doesn’t come naturally–perhaps because what we are reading it usually set in the past and it feels right most of the time.

    • That could very well be, Patti. I know I find it hard to write in the present tense, too. So far I’ve not written anything in that tense that I would actually show anyone. It’s difficult, and I think you have a solid insight as to why.

  2. tracybham

    Patti’s comment on actually writing in the present tense was very interesting. I have recently bought two books that I learned later were present tense and was disappointed. (Haven’t read them yet.) Both were written fairly recently I think and I bought both based on reviews. So it will be interesting to see how I enjoy them when I do read them.

    • Oh, that will be interesting, Tracy! It’s also really interesting to learn of your reaction when you learned they’re written in the present tense. I know a lot of people don’t mind…others do.

  3. Very interesting, Margot! As someone who, as you know, rants about the ubiquitous present tense in crime, I initially thought I’d do a quick review of my own reading, but then realised I dislike it so much I actively try to avoid it, so my results would undoubtedly be skewed. Certainly my favourite authors all use past tense – and no coincidence there. Totally anecdotally, my own feeling is that the love affair with present tense started much later than 2000. Personally I always blame Elly Griffiths – her Ruth Galloway books were the first where I became really aware of it and started mentioning in reviews how clumsy it is, so that would put it around 2009. From there it seems to me to have become a bandwagon with other authors trying to emulate her success, really kicking off around 2010-11 (although, of course, there have always been occasional users of it going way back). I would also say, again anecdotally, that it is much more prevalent in domestic noir than police procedurals, though it’s creeping into those too now. In fact, I’m hard put to think of a domestic noir that doesn’t use it – one reason for my increasing avoidance of that sub-genre. I also wonder if it’s perhaps more prevalent in UK and Nordic crime, which is mostly what I read and perhaps that’s why it seems so ubiquitous to me. And finally, again just a feeling, it seems to me it’s used far more often by authors writing about female protagonists – tied in with the whole domestic noir scene again and with what I unkindly refer to as misery-fest novels.

    There! That’s my defence for sticking to the word ‘ubiquitous’ despite the evidence! 😉

    • No need to defend yourself, FictionFan. For one thing, anecdotal evidence like yours is often a very good starting point for further study. It’s how I’ve gotten started on more than one of my research questions. I think I notice something, and then look into it. For another thing, it could very well be that if one looks at 2009-and-later crime fiction, there are more (or at the very least, a greater percentage) of present-tense novels. I didn’t cut this data quite so fine, but there’s no reason to think I wouldn’t have found something similar if I had. I also didn’t sort my data by country source or sub-genre. No doubt in my mind that the results could be affected by those factors. And finally, I think we all choose reading that reflects our tastes. So I applaud you for not falling into that research trap… 😉

  4. lemon123

    It’s an interesting poll.It’s between past and present for me.

  5. Pingback: And Talk in the Past and Not the Present Tense* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… | Toni Kennedy : A Writing Life

  6. Kathy D.

    This is a dilemma. I prefer past tense in novels, but have read books lately that are partially written in the past tense and partially written in the present tense. I recall Mercy or The Keeper of Lost Causes written in two tenses; the present tense was the kidnap victim/survivor’s voice. It got very harrowing.
    Also, in Liza Marklund’s book Borderline, part of the book is written in the present tense and in the voice of Annika Bengtzon’s partner, Thomas. It made sense for the book, although very harrowing.
    I don’t mind the present tense in Elly Griffiths’ books, probably because Ruth Galloway is one of my favorite characters.
    I’m not so fond of first person books, unless I really like them.
    And then first person voice of women in peril in the present tense — oy, a perfect storm! Time to head for the chocolate and tea and take a humor break.

    • That’s true, Kathy, that there are books where the tense changes depending on character. And as you say, sometimes the question of how we feel about the use of tense depends on how we feel about the characters and the plot. If the plot is strong and the characters well-developed, that’s the key.

  7. Margot: Thanks for the analysis. I expect I will still not pay attention to past or present tense. Is there a future tense? I expect I would notice a future tense.

    • Interesting question, Bill, about future tense! I’ve not yet encountered a book written in the future tense. I have read a few with a sentence here or there in that tense, but never entirely written in the future tense. Yes, I think one would really notice that.

  8. Kathy D.

    And I mean to add that The Girl on the Train had three female voices, all telling their stories in the present tense. Oy! The voices were indistinguishable and what those women had to say had no interesting or redeeming value.
    I just read a review of this book which articulated all of my thoughts about it and raved about Eva Dolan’s books. I concur.

  9. It is amazing what an impact this approach can have Margot, I agree. I remember in my youth when I started reading William Wharton who seemed to always use the present tense and it took some real getting used to, but he soon became a favourite. Great stats as always :).

    • Thanks, Sergio. And thanks for mentioning Wharton. I hadn’t thought of his work when I was doing this post, but you’re right; it’s a good example of how the present tense is used. And for some people, it can work well. But as you say, it takes getting used to the first time one encounters it.

  10. Col

    Thanks for the analysis, a lot of hard work done on this subject. Still ok with either in my reading, until it stops working!

  11. Margot, I don’t think I cast my vote in this interesting poll. However, I’m not comfortable reading fiction in present tense. In fact, it rather puts me off. Just a habit, I guess.

    • I don’t think you’re alone, Prashant. In my opinion, not many people seek out or particularly enjoy reading a novel written in the present tense. They may not object to it if the story’s well-written, but I don’t know anyone who seeks it out.

  12. Keishon

    Sorry to have missed that poll! I read Chelsea Cain and she writes in present tense. I don’t mind it because I like the urgency (which she does well) and suspense part of it. I can see why others dislike it. In all honesty, I don’t mind what tense is used as long as the story is a good one.

    • I know what you mean, Keishon. When a story has a solid sense of urgency and a well-developed plot line, a lot of people don’t have a problem with the present tense. And a poor plot line or ‘flat’ characters won’t be well-received no matter what tense is used.

  13. This was really interesting Margot – I was one of the respondents who was in the ‘don’t mind’ category and I would say a fair few of the books I’ve read recently are at least in part, in the present tense but I think that FictionFan may have the answer, the biggest proportion of books I read are psychological thriller (not miser-fest novels) and a higher proportion of these, but in no means all, do use the present tense. A fascinating study as always!

    • Thank you, Cleo. And thanks for sharing your own experiences. I think it’s fascinating how some sub-genres use (or don’t use) present tense a lot more than others do. It’s all showing me that sub-genre is likely a factor in whether an author chooses present tense or not. At some point, I may even have to look at that question a lot more closely. Hmmm…..

  14. I do prefer the past tense, but willing to live with the present if I like the content. But I cannot see the justification for it in most cases…

    • A lot of people see it just your way, Moira. If a story is excellent. then the tense is less important. But all things being equal, many people do prefer the past tense.

  15. Interesting that respondents said they didn’t really “mind it.” As you pointed out, that’s hardly a glowing endorsement! I’d rather read past tense because present is just distracting to me. I’ve noticed that quite a few YA books are adopting present tense, as well.

    • You’re by no means the only one who gets distracted by present tense, Elizabeth. And no, there is no overwhelming love for the present tense among the folks who were kind enough to take part in this poll. To me, it’s a sign that people really do prefer the past tense as a rule. As a writer, I plan to take heed. Interesting about YA books, too. I wonder if those who prefer them mind that or are distracted by it.

  16. I’m late coming to this party, Margot. I don’t on the whole like the present tense and can’t imagine using it in a novel. When I come across it, it is a barrier to be surmounted and I’m often put off. Short stories are a different matter and I have used it there occasionally, where it can create a sense of urgency, I feel.

    • You’re by no means alone, Christine, in your preference for the past tense in novels. And it’s interesting you’d mention not using it in your writing; I don’t, either. I think you’ve made a really interesting distinction, though, between novels and short stories. I’ll have to think about that, but my first impression is that I’ve read some very find short stories that use present tense. Hmm……thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  17. As you and other readers here so well put it the “key to a well-written book isn’t what tense the author chooses. It’s the quality of the plot, the character development and the overall writing style.”
    However, I recently read Susan Crawford’s crime novel The Pocket Wife where she uses both the present and the past tense. At the beginning I found it a bit annoying but as I continued to read I appreciated the shift in tenses for it clearly situated me in time.
    Also to note that she used the third person, so I wonder if the usage of either present or past tense makes a difference as to whether it is told in first or third person.
    Just helping to keep the discussion going! 🙂

    • Oh, that’s an interesting question, Carol. I’ve read present-tense books that use first person, and those that use third. I’m sure that choice impacts a person’s enjoyment of a book, as it’s so essential for character development and storytelling. Thanks, too, for mentioning Crawford’s work. I admit I’ve not yet read The Pocket Wife (Interesting title!), but I do know what you mean about the way a shift in tense can situate a person.

  18. I’m with Patti: I much prefer the past tense. For telling a story that happened in the past it seems the natural way to relate the events in the story.

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